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April 13, 2005

Restaurants are a Service Business

When you eat out a lot, you are bound to run into less than perfect dining experiences. Most of the time, issues with dining have to do with the level of execution in the kitchen, but sometimes service issues put a damper on your meal. What really sets restaurants apart is how they handle these situations. Some restaurants have trained their staffs properly, and as a result, they manage to turn a situation with the potential for disaster into one that satisfies the customer. But some restaurants are less customer-friendly. In my experience, when something goes wrong in one of those restaurants, you can be sure that the staff will do everything they can to turn an incipient disaster into an actual one. Here are two stories of what happened to me within a ten-day period while dining out in Manhattan.

My wife, Mrs. P, and I recently went to dinner at Scott Conant’s restaurant L’Impero. We were dining with another couple who are members of the OA forum discussion group, both quite knowledgeable about food and wine. In fact, the woman is the sommelier at one of Manhattan’s top Japanese restaurants, and the male an avid wine collector. This was their first visit to L'Impero, but Mrs. P and I had dined their once, when the restaurant first opened about 2-1/2 years ago. I recalled that when we ate there, they had a BYO policy and I brought a bottle of wine with me. So each couple arranged to bring a bottle of wine to dinner.

It had been sleeting all afternoon, and the weather that evening was treacherous. When I arrived, the other three were already at the table. It didn’t take long for things to go wrong. The first bottle of wine, a 1961 Giacomo Borgogna Barolo, was already on the table. As soon as I took my bottle of 1978 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santa Stefano Riserva out of my wine bag, the sommelier pounced on us to announce that the restaurant had a one bottle per table BYO rule. The news surprised me. I hadn’t recalled the restaurant having this policy on my first visit, but in all fairness, I only brought one bottle with me so maybe the issue never came up. Still, it was a silly rule that made little sense. Two tables for two could open two bottles, but one table of four people could only open one bottle.

While explaining their policy, the sommelier seemed to indicate flexibility. I described my prior experience, and he replied that “this is the owner’s policy." I immediately took that as a cue to ask him if he would go ask the owner about it. But then he broke the news that he had spoken to him already, and he had said no. Not being someone who likes to take no for answer in a service situation, especially when the policy is so patently illogical. I asked him if we could speak to the owner and he said he would get him. The sommelier briefly disappeared, only to return with the news that the owner was busy and couldn’t speak to us (which I took as his saying that he wouldn’t speak to us). So I thought I would give the restaurant one last chance to redeem itself, and I appealed to his sense of fairness by pointing out that we had no idea of this rule, and we had had brought two special bottles of wine, and given the horrible weather, we were in no position to leave and go elsewhere. Unfortunately, flexibility was not in the restaurant’s playbook, and he said, "No," one final time. At that point I looked at him and said, “Fine, one bottle it will be. But I am going to write about this incident on the Internet tomorrow.” I wish I was able to capture what happened next on video, because it would make a great training tape for restaurant owners to use to teach their employees what not to do when a customer is unhappy.

A look of horror came over the sommelier’s face. He then started telling me, in a voice that was louder than his normal speaking voice, but full of nervousness, how reasonable their policy was. I responded by saying that at this point he was either going to let us open both bottles, or I wanted him to leave me alone. But he kept on trying to explain their policy, so I calmly told him that the only thing I was interested in him saying was that we could open both bottles, and if that wasn’t what he had to say, would he kindly stop talking to me. But he completely ignored me, and he started yelling at me, repeating how reasonable the policy was. There I was, sort of disbelieving what was going on, but having to match him volume-wise, while telling him to either let us open both bottles or to leave us alone. But he wouldn’t stop, and he was out and out yelling at me at this point. Finally I had it up to here with him, and I thrust my arm towards the host’s stand and got that look on my face as if my head was going to explode and he was going to have brain matter all over his shirt, and I said in a loud voice, “Step away from the table. The only thing I want to hear you say is that we can open both bottles. If that isn’t what you have to say, step back and leave us alone.” Finally he walked away with a frustrated look on his face.

I wish this was the end of the story, but things got worse from there. The way the restaurant has its menu set up, the cost is $56 for four-courses. You get a choice of a raw fish course or an appetizer, a pasta course, an entrée, and either cheese or dessert. I don't eat pasta so that was out, and the risotto of the day was rabbit which isn't my favorite. So I asked our waiter, who happened to be an old acquaintance of the woman we were dining with, if I could substitute a second raw fish course or appetizer for the pasta course. “Sorry,” he said, “the only thing I can substitute for pasta is a green salad. If you want an appetizer instead, I have to charge you the a la carte price for it.” Of course, this didn't sit well with me. Especially after living though the incident with the wines. So I started to quiz the waiter about the economics behind this rule. "If I don’t eat the pasta course, and if I don’t eat the green salad, but I order something a la carte instead, will you credit the price of the pasta course/green salad that I didn’t eat to my meal?" The guy gave me one of those looks because he knew I had figured out the flaw in their logic, but he stuck to the party line and repeated the rule. To cut to the chase (I should say cut to the cheese which is what I wanted to be eating at this point), I paid my $56, refused to accept a green salad, and had an empty place setting while everyone else ate their pasta course. After the waiter set the dishes down, and my setting was left bare, we all commented that there isn’t a fine restaurant in the entire world that would allow a customer to go through a course, especially one they had paid for, with an empty place setting. But I guess there is a first for everything.

Fast forward to about ten days later, and Mrs. P and I were having dinner at Danny Meyer’s restaurant Tabla. Like L’impero, I hadn’t been to Tabla since they first opened. I had visited the Bread Bar downstairs on many occasions, but not the formal restaurant upstairs. It didn’t take us long to decide on the seven-course tasting menu. I looked through the menu and there didn’t seem like there was anything on it that we didn’t or couldn’t eat. But just in case, I alerted the waitress that I had difficulty digesting wheat gluten. Actually I told her I had an allergy. It’s just an easier way of communicating my situation to a kitchen. So the waitress checked with the kitchen, and she returned a few minutes later to tell me that it would be fine.

We were having our last savory course, and up until that point, the meal was without incident. The dish was a duo of Kobe Beef, which was sliced, and then laid upon what appeared to be, and what tasted like, a vegetable purée. It was really delicious. I had eaten half of the portion when I asked Mrs. P, “What is this thing? Boy, it’s delicious.” Well the server had given us copies of our menu so we could refer to the dishes as we were eating them. “Oh my god,” she said, “it’s semolina purée.” I immediately dropped my fork (though I had the urge to eat the rest, it was so good) and motioned for the waitress to come over to our table.

What happened next was almost as unbelievable as what happened at L’Impero. Upon hearing the news the waitress was not a happy camper. “I told them in the kitchen. I made it clear to them what the issue was, and they assured me everything would be fine.” She asked me if there was anything she could do. I told her no, it wasn't as if I was going to keel over or go into shock, but I would probably have a headache and an upset stomach the next day. She left our table, and about three minutes later, a woman appeared, identifying herself as the manager. She was apologizing profusely, and I gave her the same speech about it not being a matter of life or death. At this point my attitude was, what’s done is done, mistakes happen, the restaurant has admitted their mistake, let's move on because there there is nothing left to talk about. I tried to change the subject to talk about desserts, but it became clear that I was going to be stuck with sorbet. So I told her to forget dessert, just bring us the check. She left the table to go get it, but she came back a minute later and said, “There is no check. Dinner is on the house.” It was one of those classic moments in iife. I’ve known my wife since we were 15 years old, and sometimes we can communicate without saying a word. And this time her eyes were saying, you don’t see that every day. We thanked the manager profusely, and left what would have been a 33% tip on the meal.

The next morning I was working on the blog when the phone rang. The person on the other end was speaking to me in an Indian accent. I was having a hard time understanding what he was saying. I started wondering if I might have called Dell Computer or one of my other providers and they were calling me back. “Who is this?” I repeated into the phone. Then all of a sudden the voice became clear. “It’s Floyd Cardoz, the chef at Tabla. I am calling to see if you are okay and to apologize for what happened last night.” After getting over my shock, and telling him that luckily I had just a small headache, and a couple of Tylenol had done the trick, we had a nice little chat about the meal, and I told him how terrific a dish his Fluke Tartar was. But it was truly amazing for a chef at a top restaurant to take time out of his day, to try and make amends to a customer for a mistake that the restaurant had made.

So there you have it. One dining instance where they basically tell you, it’s our way or the highway and they are completely inflexible. Then, when they find out that you have actual recourse because you are in a position to tell other people about their policies, they don't know how to handle the situation and everything they do ends up making things worse. And a second situation, where a restaurant finds out they have made a mistake, and they bend over backwards to try and make things right. While I know the two situations aren’t really comparable, it demonstrates how different restaurants have different views of their customers. If the owner and staff at L’Impero want to learn how to treat customers properly, they should call Danny Meyer up and ask him if will be kind enough to retrain them.

Danny Meyer deserves kudos, as does Floyd Cardoz, as does Katherine Farris, the manager at Tabla that evening, and I hope the upshot of this article is that it encourages people to frequent the restaurant. But while L'Impero might not give a damn what I think, I can tell you they have lost me as a customer forever. I hope this article discourages people from going there. L'Impero seems to be a place that has a bigger investment in arbitrary and silly rules than in making customers happy. After all, a restaurant is a service business. And if you go out of your way to give people poor service, and impose all sorts of silly rules on them, and the owner doesn’t even have the courtesy of coming to your table so he can explain himself, a restaurant should suffer the consequences.

April 13, 2005 in Opinion | Permalink

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